WASHINGTON – The number of unaccompanied immigrant children arrested for illegally crossing the U.S. southern border is on track to increase more than 50% in February compared to the previous month, people familiar with the matter said, raising the possibility of a humanitarian crisis there.
About 2,200 children have been illegally crossing the border weekly in February, and the pace is picking up as the month progresses, some of the people said. The government projects that some 9,000 children will be detained by the end of February.
US Customs and Border Protection reported taking 5,707 unaccompanied children into custody in January, an 18% increase from the previous month. The increasing number of children in custody is beginning to affect the government’s ability to house and care for them properly.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. CBP said it would not share the specific number of unaccompanied children detained outside of the monthly totals, saying the figure was a sensitive law enforcement matter, adding that it continued to prioritize the processing of children before other migrants.
The Biden administration has been trying to avoid a repeat of the humanitarian border crises in 2014 and 2019 when waves of unaccompanied migrant children and families overwhelmed federal facilities.
Until February, the rate of children arriving at the border unaccompanied remained lower than in any of those previous waves. The government’s task of caring for children had already been complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Space in the government network of child welfare shelters, operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services, has been reduced by 40% to allow for social distancing.
That has meant that the government has reached its capacity much faster than it would have before the pandemic. The government opened an emergency shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, this week to house more children.
When children cannot be quickly shipped to shelters, they remain in the custody of the Border Patrol. Cells at Border Patrol facilities are not designed to house children and their agents are not trained to care for them.
As of Friday, more than 900 children were waiting at Border Patrol stations to be transferred to a shelter, according to a person familiar with the number, and 100 of them were waiting longer than the 72-hour limit allowed by law.
Illegal border crossings by unaccompanied children, families, and single adults have increased since the summer due to a combination of factors. The pandemic has aggravated the economic situation in Mexico and Central America, where most of the migrants come from.
The Biden administration has been trying to strike a balance in its policy on the southern border, signaling to immigration advocates that it is working to reverse former President Donald Trump’s policies that restrict access to the asylum system, while also sending a message to potential migrants, in English and Spanish: now is not the time to make the trip north.
White House officials have been working with Latin American governments to spread their message and, in some cases, recruit foreign agents to return migrants at the southern U.S. borders.
The Biden administration has put into effect an emergency public health order issued by former President Trump during the pandemic that allows border agents to quickly return most of the migrants they encounter, bypassing the formal arrest process. In such cases, migrants have not been allowed to apply for asylum, a legal protection that anyone can seek if they flee political, religious or other persecution in their home countries.
Although crossing the border without permission is illegal, US law allows foreigners to apply for asylum regardless of how they entered the country. Most asylum seekers in the United States eventually lose their cases, according to Justice Department data.
In November, a court ordered the Trump administration to stop applying the emergency public health policy to children. An appeals court reversed that decision after President Biden took office, but his administration decided not to resume sending children to their home countries.
“Our best option, in our opinion, is to process these children in HHS facilities where Covid protocols are in place, where they are safe, where they can access medical and educational care,” said White House press secretary Jen. Psaki. Thursday.
Republicans and former Trump administration officials have criticized the Biden administration for that decision, saying it contributed to the recent surge.
“This is a self-inflicted crisis,” Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser and architect of his immigration policy, said in an interview.
Write to Michelle Hackman at [email protected]
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